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At least two hundreds migrants are dead after the motorboats they were travelling on sank in the Mediterranean Sea, the UN’s refugee agency says.
“Nine were saved after four days at sea. The other 203 were swallowed by the waves,” UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Italy, Carlotta Sami, said on Twitter.
She called the situation a “horrible and enormous tragedy”.
On February 9, at least 29 migrants died after the inflatable boat carrying them overturned in high seas.
Seven were already dead when they were picked up near the Italian island of Lampedusa, and a further 22 succumbed to hypothermia after spending more than 18 hours on the open deck of the vessel which picked them up.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the two boats involved in the latest tragedy to befall migrants bound for Europe crossing the Mediterranean Sea had departed from the Libyan coast on February 7.
The IOM says that each boat was carrying more than 100 people when they capsized, probably on February 9.
The nine survivors all speak French, and are believed to be from West Africa.
The Italian government launched a search and rescue mission called Mare Nostrum to patrol the waters off the Libyan coast for ships carrying migrants that may have run into trouble in response to a previous tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa.
The mission was launched after a fishing boat capsized off the island in October 2013, killing 366 people, but was disbanded a year later.
Australia has admitted it has returned 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities at sea, raising concerns that it violated international law.
The transfer took place on Sunday.
Rights groups had raised concerns that some 200 Sri Lankans may have been handed over, including Tamils who say they face persecution at home.
The government has not commented on other possible cases, but says everyone was subject to “enhanced screening” to ensure compliance with Australia’s international obligations.
This is the first time the Australian government has confirmed it has intercepted people at sea, screened them and returned them to their country of origin. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison acknowledge on Monday that a boat-load of 41 people had been handed back to Sri Lanka, while not commenting on the fate of a second boat reportedly carrying about 150 people.
Scott Morrison said they were transferred at sea just outside the Sri Lankan port of Batticaloa on Sunday.
Australia has admitted it has returned 41 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan authorities at sea
“All persons intercepted and returned were subjected to an enhanced screening process,” he said.
The government says only four of those returned on Sunday were Tamils.
Scott Morrison added that only one person may have had a case for asylum but he opted to return voluntarily with the rest of the passengers.
Last week the UN refugee agency UNHCR had expressed “profound concern” about the reported situation.
“Requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee protection principles,” it said.
“International law prescribes that no individual can be returned involuntarily to a country in which he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Sri Lanka has been under heavy international pressure over alleged human rights violations during the final phase of the war against Tamil separatists which ended in 2009.
Rights groups say Tamils still face violence at the hands of the military.
The Australian government has been criticized for imposing what campaigners call a culture of secrecy around asylum, by refusing to comment on operations.
Under current policy, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are sent to detention camps in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru. If found to be refugees, they will be resettled there, not in Australia.
Australia says its asylum policy – which is also widely believed to involve towing boats back to Indonesian waters – is aimed at saving lives.
It is also facing tough questions over its offshore processing policy. The UN and rights groups have condemned conditions in its camps in PNG and Nauru.
French police in the northern city of Calais is removing about 800 migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa who are occupying camps near the port.
The authorities say the evictions are needed to deal with an outbreak of scabies in the camps, where numbers have swelled in recent months.
French police in Calais is removing about 800 migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa who are occupying camps near the port (photo Reuters)
The migrants have been trying to get to Britain, and say they have nowhere else to go after the camps are destroyed.
Police moved into the site after a deadline for people to leave expired.
Several busloads of police in riot gear arrived at the camps early on Wednesday.
After a stand-off with local activists, the officers moved in and told migrants to pack their bags.
Local officials say the migrants will be transported to new accommodation somewhere in the region, but initial attempts to persuade them to board buses were unsuccessful.
Most people at the camps believe the UK will be a more welcoming place if only they can get there.
The migrants have been sheltering under plastic bags and sheets, without water, power or even enough food.
The camps are a few hundred metres from a terminal where ferries take passengers and goods back and forth between France and the UK.
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Italian and Greek coast guards saved more than 300 migrants from rough waters in two separate incidents.
The Italian navy said it picked up 233 people, mostly from African countries, who had been stuck in an “overcrowded” vessel south of Sicily.
Meanwhile Greek coast guards rescued 85 migrants off the island of Astypalaia.
Every year thousands of African and Arab migrants fleeing war and poverty risk their lives trying to reach the Europe.
Greece and Italy are both main entry points for those who attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing.
In October more than 400 people drowned in two shipwrecks near the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Many of them were from Eritrea and Somalia, but the civil war in Syria has also resulted in an increased flow of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Italian and Greek coast guards saved more than 300 migrants from rough waters in two separate incidents
Italian officials said on Thursday that the migrants were rescued from a 33ft-long boat about 80 miles from Lampedusa.
“Considering the rough seas, the overcrowded boat and the precarious conditions, a situation of emergency was declared,” the Italian navy said in a statement.
It added that the migrants were in good health and had been ferried to Sicily.
They are reported to have come from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Zambia, Mali and Pakistan.
Greek authorities said they picked up migrants near Astypalaia after receiving a distress signal from the vessel’s captain because of bad weather.
Women and children were among those rescued.
In the past, human rights organizations, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, have strongly criticized Italy and Greece countries for “push-backs” – a policy of sending migrants back to their point of departure.
In the aftermath of the Lampedusa shipwrecks, the Italian government launched an operation called “Mare Nostrum”, mobilizing warships and aircraft to prevent further tragedies.
Italy has also called for help from other EU states to deal with the migrant influx.
The European Commission has asked for more resources for joint sea patrols, and more co-ordination with countries that migrants embark from, such as Libya.
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The bodies of 87 people who died of thirst after their vehicles broke down as they tried to cross the Sahara have been found by rescue workers in Niger.
Rescue worker Almoustapha Alhacen said the corpses were in a severe state of decomposition and had been partly eaten, probably by jackals.
Those found are thought to be migrant workers and their families. Most were women and children.
Niger lies on a major migrant route between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
But among those who make it across the desert, many end up working in North African countries.
According to Almoustapha Alhacen, one of the vehicles that the migrants were travelling in broke down some time after they left Arlit at the end of September or beginning of October.
About 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara desert through Niger
It appears that some of the group set out on foot, including up to 10 people who made it back to Arlit and raised the alarm, he said.
It was reported on Monday that five bodies had been found.
On Wednesday, volunteers and soldiers working in searing heat found other corpses about 6 miles from the Algerian border.
Speaking from Arlit, a centre for uranium mining north of Agadez, Almoustapha Alhacen said he had experienced the worst day of his life when he found the bodies.
They were given Muslim burials where they were found, he said.
Given that at least 48 of those found were children or teenagers, Almoustapha Alhacen said it was possible they were on their way to low-paid jobs in neighboring Algeria.
It is not clear which countries the migrants came from.
“There were no clues. My guess is that the children were madrassa [Islamic school] children, being taken to Algeria to work. That is the only explanation that I and others can find for such a large number of children having travelled together,” Almoustapha Alhacen said.
About 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara desert through Niger, according to John Ging, director of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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